While the holidays are often a source of great joy for friends and family members reuniting around a Christmas tree or a fully loaded dinner table, they can also cause stress levels to spike and symptoms of depression to set in.
Staff psychiatrist Dr. Elaine Mallary said stress is the key factor for many cases of the “holiday blues.”
“People are generally more stressed out during the holidays,” Mallary said. “Pressures are especially high with people under more financial strain this year.”
With gifts to buy, desserts to prepare, family members to attend to and parties to attend, Mallary said some people simply stretch themselves too thin during the holidays.
“Things like sadness, irritability, changes in sleep, changes in energy and concentration, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, those can all pop up during the holidays,” Mallary said.
The traditional images of a successful Christmas with a spirit of compassion warming even the hard-hearted Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge are not always realistic, Mallary said, leading many people to feel they are doing something wrong if they do not feel joyous amid the caroling.
“We feel like we ought to feel a certain way or we ought to have a certain experience,” she said. “That can be worse for people during the holidays because they feel like they’re supposed to live up to certain expectations, they’re supposed to have a certain experience, and that’s not always realistic.”
Families dealing with the death of a loved one can also experience acute feelings of grief and sadness during the holidays, Mallary said. As the years go by, new holiday memories will replace feelings of loss and despair.
There is a clear distinction between having the blues during the holidays and suffering from clinical depression, which will not go away when the tinsel and ornaments are packed away for another year.
“It’s more than the blues in that people stop being able to function as they normally would at home or in the workplace or with their family,” she said. “We’d consider that real clinical depression and people should seek help for that.”
Consider seeking professional medical help if your stress becomes all-consuming and you begin feeling persistent anxiety or depression. A professional can evaluate your lifestyle and recommend treatments and stress-reduction techniques that can help enhance your immune system and protect you from future problems.
“Most people start with their primary care physician,” she said. “You can also turn to counselors, therapists, ministers – there’s a variety of places to start. The important part is that people reach out and try to get some help.”
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